Band of Brothers – A Soldier Honors the Legacy of His Best Friend

November 11, 2014
Staff Sgt. Erik Tofte honored his best friend by carrying a Donate Life Flag with him on tours of the Middle East and Africa.

Staff Sgt. Erik Tofte honored his best friend by carrying a Donate Life Flag with him on tours of the Middle East, Africa and Thailand.

This article was originally published in the Q1 issue of Gift of Hope’s Connections Newsletter

Cameron Chana and Staff Sgt. Erik Tofte first met in 2006 when they pledged for the Sigma Pi fraternity at Eastern Illinois University in Charleston, Ill. Chana, of Clarendon Hills, Ill., was entering his sophomore year and eager to continue his college pursuits while serving as a member of Sigma Pi. Tofte, of Roscoe, Ill., also a sophomore but three years older than Chana, had a year of community college under his belt after coming off active duty as a member of the U.S. Army’s famed 1st Cavalry Division. They were accepted into the fraternity, and for the next three years they were college roommates and worked closely together in their various roles within the Sigma Pi fraternity house. They became brothers.

Cameron Chana

Cameron Chana

“Cameron was easily the most memorable person I met during my time at Eastern,” Tofte recalled. “He was one-of-a-kind, and there aren’t enough positive words in any language to describe just how remarkable of a person he was. I have been half-way around the world with my Army travels and have met all kinds of people from all walks of life, and it’s no exaggeration to say Cameron was easily among the best of them. He was warm, kind, funny, loving, smart and helpful.”

The trait that radiated from Chana most — the part everyone fell in love with — was his genuine caring attitude, Tofte added. “It didn’t matter if you had known him for years or just met him 10 minutes ago. He wanted to get to know you better. It was why so many people considered him their best friend and why there was, and there remains, such a strong reaction among his friends and fellow students to his loss.”

It was late May 2009, three weeks after Chana had graduated from EIU. He had decided to pursue an MBA at EIU, so he stayed there after graduation with plans to start graduate school in the fall. He and about 50 others, mostly EIU students, were returning to campus on a rented double-decker bus with an open-air top after a day of boating at Lake Shelbyville, a popular central Illinois recreational area. Chana, who stood about 6-foot-3, and another man were facing backward when the bus headed under the Interstate Highway 57 overpass on Illinois Highway 16 in Mattoon, just west of the EIU campus. Chana and the other man both were killed instantly when their heads struck the overpass.

Quick-thinking students gave both men CPR until first responders arrived. The students didn’t know both men were beyond saving at that point. But their actions proved to be lifesaving nonetheless.

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Erik, a Humvee and the Donate Life flag

That’s because Chana was a registered organ and tissue donor. Chana’s parents, Rob and Lori, didn’t know about their son’s decision to be a donor. That fact surfaced when they heard the devastating news that Cameron was brain-dead. Even in death, Cameron’s caring attitude emerged, Rob said. “Cameron had taken all appropriate steps to be an organ and tissue donor. He knew the decision to donate would be a difficult one for us, and he didn’t want us to have to make that decision if we were ever faced with it. That was Cameron.”

Surgeons recovered Chana’s heart, liver, lungs and two kidneys, and those gifts saved five people’s lives. And his tissue gifts have resulted in more than 50 transplants to date. Cameron’s impact on other people’s lives through his decision to be an organ and tissue donor is his legacy, Tofte said. “It was only a matter of time until he made a mark on the world. We all expected that to happen in life. In his case, he has made his mark in death.”

Tofte has dedicated himself to ensuring that Chana’s mark leaves a very large footprint. Since 2009, he has been a member of the Texas Army National Guard and has been deployed to several locations, including Africa, the Mideast and Thailand. During those deployments, Tofte took several steps to make sure the areas he visited felt his best friend’s presence and learned about the importance of organ and tissue donation.

For example, he carried a Donate Life flag with him, and, taking a “roaming gnome” approach, he had photographs taken of himself holding the Donate Life flag throughout his travels. He also created Donate Life and C.L.C. (Chana’s initials) nameplates for his uniform and wore them over his regulation insignia when possible and appropriate and took more photographs of him wearing the nameplates. And he had pro-donation T-shirts made and wore one in many other photographs. He compiled many of these photographs into a photo book.

Erik with the Donate Life flag in Djibouti.

Erik with the Donate Life flag in Djibouti.

Knowing he would return to the states in November 2012, Tofte arranged to visit the Chana family to present them with three surprise gifts: the Donate Life flag he carried with him, the photo book and a T-shirt he wore at his various landing points. He also brought a certificate of authenticity from his base commander in Djibouti verifying that the Donate Life flag flew over Camp Lemonnier, Djibouti, on August 6, 2012, “as a symbol and constant reminder of the importance of the Donate Life program and the impact donors have on our great nation.”

In December 2012, Tofte visited the Chanas at their Clarendon Hills home to present them with his gifts. “We had no idea he was doing it,” said Lori Chana. “It was an amazing tribute. We were really touched by it.”

Presenting those gifts was the least he could do to honor the legacy of a dear friend who made the lives of so many people better — in life and in death, Tofte said. “Cameron was the kind of person the world so desperately needs more of. It’s also what makes his participation in organ and tissue donation so fitting. It’s as beautiful as it is tragic.”

See more photos of Erik, Cameron and the Donate Life flag at GiftofHope.org.

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Post Transplant Update from Bill Coon

December 3, 2009

Our last update here on heart and kidney transplant recipient Bill Coon was from back in October when Bill had just received his transplants. I recently checked back in with Bill to see how things have been going. Below is a letter from he sent back along with a few recent entries documenting his recovery.

-Scott

Bill Coon

I apologize for my recent hiatus from this blog. I returned home on November 2, 2009 for the first time in seventy days. Since returning home, I have been very busy trying to get my life back on track, as I have been noticeably growing stronger with each day. Much of my time has been preoccupied with writing thank you notes, and a large amount of homework that I am behind on from my online courses.

I have recently read many of the comments from the September entries, and I want to say thank you to everyone who had written such beautiful messages to me. I truly appreciate your prayers and support.

In an attempt to make up for lost time, I have included two exerts from my forthcoming book “Swim”, and I plan on becoming a much more frequent blogger now that I am filled with a form of energy that I have not felt since December 2008.

I hope everyone had a wonderful Thanksgiving, and I wish you all an even better holiday season.

I hope you all enjoy,

Bill Coon

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Today is my one-month anniversary of receiving my life-saving heart transplant. I was thinking about what I wanted to say in this entry, how I could possibly express my gratitude to my donor, and that’s when I realized that I can’t. The best I could do is simply describe how wonderful I feel.

I have come a long way since surgery; in fact, I have come a long way since last week. I feel revived. I run up-and-down stairs without thinking, I can eat anything I want without thinking twice about sodium. The only pain I experience is muscular pain in my shoulders, and even that is decreasing as the weeks go by. My life is back on track, my future has once again been restored, I am finally happy again.

As much as I want to vast in the glory of my survival, I can’t. It has dawned on me several times throughout the day that though my entire family has been writing me emails congratulating me on my “one-month”, I realize that somewhere in this country there is a an entire family in pain. They are faced with the gloomy realization that a month ago today they lost their loved one. Obviously, I don’t know what the family looks like, but I continuously get this image of four women sitting at a table, as their tears fall on the picture of their lost family member. I can’t shake the image; it’s just stuck in my mind.

Thursday, November 26, 2009 – Thanksgiving Day

What am I thankful for on this Thanksgiving? I should definitely start with the obvious, I am thankful for my donor. I am thankful for the unselfish generosity of his/her family. I am thankful that they were able to look outside of themselves during their darkest hour and make a decision that saved not only my life, (but I can only assume), the lives of many others.

I can imagine that they spent this day struggling to find something to be thankful for. Everything positive in their lives must have no comparison to the sadness that they felt on October 21st, and the sorrow that they are still without a doubt experiencing. I wish I could do something to help ease their pain, but I know that I cannot. This thought tore at me as I tried to indulge in the ham and turkey throughout the day. It’s 4:02am and I still haven’t been able to shake the thought from my mind.

The only minuscule comfort that I can find for the family that saved my life, is the fact that they have forever joined a community. They have joined the community of those touched by organ donation, the same overwhelmingly loving, and supportive community that reached out to me during my time of darkness, offering their support, stories, and words of encouragement. The very community that on this Thanksgiving I give thanks to.

On this Thanksgiving I am thankful to no longer feel pain when I move my legs. I am thankful that I no longer have a catheter protruding from my neck, and that I no longer have to take Morphine to get through the day. I am thankful for my unbelievable support system of family and friends, and for the staff at Northwestern who took a man who was in shambles, and with the power of modern-day medicine, pieced him back together stronger than he has ever been.

On this Thanksgiving, I am thankful to be alive.

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